I have been much enjoying the work of Mark Power, particularly his long-running and ongoing series Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Power is working here within a long tradition of American documentary photographers, and photographers of the man-made landscape, going back to Walker Evans and then Robert Frank and through photographers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, among many.
From some angles this now substantial body of work can be seen as the Great American Road Trip (O’Hagan 2014) – both Power and Sternfeld have crisscrossed the United States – but in some ways that is to trivialize their work. What really interests me here at the moment is the degree of social comment and engagement among photographers as the American Dream soured and then became the grim landscape of dereliction and inequality that we can see today (and see too in many other countries including Britain). It is this unfolding historical process that connects my own practice to their work because in photographing my home town I am confronted with some of the same social questions that have confronted others in the United States.
To my eye there has been a noticeable move away from the more aesthetically based practice of Eggleston and Shore, what has been call the ‘beautiful mysterious’. It is possible to find social comment in Eggleston but that never seems much of an intent. For example, Eggleston’s Unititled (Memphis) of 1970 in Figure 1 may well contain social comment, in its utter banality and with the contrast between the poised and coiffured woman and the heavy metal chain suggesting perhaps the limited and confined role of women a patriarchal society. However, these points if there at all are never overtly stated.
When we move forward and consider Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects of 1987, however, we can find some real bite and anger, images that sometimes suggest nothing much has changed since the Great Depression (Sternfeld 2003). See Figure 2, for example. Sternfeld is also good on immigration, portraying poor Latin American workers long before this floated up to near the top of the political agenda.
Mark Power’s work in Good Morning, America strikes me as showing the same engagement and bite as Sternfeld, but Power tempers this with an acute, distanced and almost cerebral approach to what he has actually chosen to photograph. His are considered works, in part a consequence of using a tripod and a plate camera (now substituted for a digital back). In his own words:
‘My pictures are all about layers of information as well as detail. I make pictures which are in sharp focus right across the picture plain, so beyond the framing I impose I’m not dictating what the viewer should look at. Therefore, one can come to the pictures carrying the baggage of one’s own prejudices or, indeed, personal interests. You might call them democratic photographs. All I’m trying to do is to show what is happening in front of me as factually as I possibly can’ (Cannell 2018).
There is (I presume) a nod to Eggleston here in Power’s ‘democratic photographs’. However, it is really helpful to learn how these masterful photographers approach their own work. A phrase attributed to Power sums it up: think, shoot, think. The message here is that I need to spend time on the streets, enough time to allow the images to come to me, and that nothing is gained by rushing around trying to create social engagement where in truth none exists. Another view of Power’s practice from a critic:
He approaches the American landscape omnivorously, pulling in countless details so that a single picture takes on several interlocking issues. His frame is rational and studied, lending a sense of order to the chaos of highway overpasses, street signs, and power lines that litter the built environment. By shooting with a degree of physical distance and assuring each plane is in sharp focus, Power’s photographs maintain a seemingly objective point of view that leaves ample room for the viewer to wrestle with their own biases and proclivities as they work their way through the layers of information vividly presented to them (Harris 2019).
Here are two examples of Power’s work. Figure 3 shows a mysterious reddish building in Victoria, Texas. Its gaudy neon embellishments could be straight out of the practice of Eggleston three decades ago. In fact, however, this building is a bail bond office, not a bar or nightclub. The bail bond industry and the whole notion of this imposition on the poor – in some ways the public face of the penal system for many – are a hugely divisive issue in America today. This isn’t something I can imagine Eggleston or Shore covering, but today it seems to me that one cannot not cover it.
The second image in Figure 4 is a wonderful example of studium and punctum: a sad and derelict building photographed straight-on – no creative angles or touches here – until you notice the sign.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2017. ‘Joel Sternfeld on His Classic American Prospects – and His New Work’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/sternfeld/ [accessed 17 Mar 2020].
CANNELL, Stevie. 2018. ‘Magnum Photographer Mark Power on Capturing the America of His Childhood’. HERO Magazine 4 Dec [online]. Available at: http://hero-magazine.com/article/136743/magnum-photographer-mark-power-on-capturing-the-america-of-his-childhood/ [accessed 17 Mar 2020].
CHANDLER, David. 2018. ‘Photographer Mark Power Documents the Collapse of the American Dream’. Financial Times 2 Mar [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/45180348-1c15-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6 [accessed 17 Mar 2020].
HAMITON, Peter. 2019. ‘On the Road with Mark Power’. British Journal of Photography 31 May [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/05/on-the-road/ [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
HARRIS, Gregory. 2019. ‘Cracks in the Façade of the American Dream – Mark Power’. Magnum Photos 17 Jul [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/mark-power-good-morning-america-volume-two/ [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Mark Power – Photographer Profile’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/mark-power/ [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
O’HAGAN, Sean. 2017. ‘The Drifter: Joel Sternfeld on His Sly Glimpses of Wild America – Seen from the Endless Highway’. The Guardian 11 Jan [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/11/joel-sternfeld-photographer-america-interview-colour-photographs-1977-88 [accessed 17 Mar 2020].
O’HAGAN, Sean. 2014. ‘The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip Review – a Survey of Photographers’ Journeys’. The Guardian 30 Nov [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/30/open-road-photography-america-david-campany-review [accessed 17 Mar 2020].
STERNFELD, Joel, Katy SIEGEL, Kerry BROUGHER, Andy GRUNDBERG and Anne TUCKER. 2003. American Prospects. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl; London: Thames & Hudson.
Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970. Untitled (Memphis).
Figure 2. Joel STERNFELD. 1983. Family in a car in Tent City outside Houston, Texas.
Figure 3. Mark POWER. 2018. Victoria, Texas. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
Figure 4. Mark POWER. 2017. Selma, Alabama 2017. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 16 Mar 2020].